Traditions and change in scaphopod shell beads in Northern Australia from the Pleistocene to the recent past

Jane Balme, Sue O'Connor

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference paperChapterpeer-review


Shell beads were made in Australia from about 35,000 years ago. They include perforated marine gastropods and intentionally fractured segments of scaphopods. While some of the oldest Australian examples are in archaeological sites that were close to the Pleistocene coastline, in the southern Kimberley of northern Australia, beads are found primarily in early Holocene contexts and in sites that were more than 500 km from the coast at the time of their deposition. This suggests that they were either traded or exchanged “down the line.” Historic photos and ethnographic evidence reveal that in the recent past Indigenous men, women and children in coastal locations wore such beads, whereas in central Australia they took on powerful properties and were used in ceremonial contexts with gender and age restricted use. One of the characteristics of marine shell ornaments in northern Australia is their bright, white or lustrous appearance that seems to have been intrinsic to their selection as body adornments. Distributions of shell beads across time and space in Australia can be interpreted as being related to changes in access to resources and social value which has implications
for the interpretation of archaeological beads elsewhere.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationNot just for show
Subtitle of host publicationThe archaeology of beads, beadwork and personal ornaments
EditorsDaniella E. Bar-Yosef Mayer, Clive Bonsall, Alice M. Choyke
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxbow Books
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781785706936
ISBN (Print)9781785706929
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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